Historic Milestone Achieved: More Non-English-Speaking Members Now Than English-Speaking

By Jay M. Todd

Managing Editor

Print Share

    Sometime in September 2000, a significant milestone in Church membership will be reached. Statisticians estimate that in September, 170 years after the gospel was restored in the host language of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Church will at long last have more non-English-speaking members than English-speaking.

    This is the second important signpost reached in the past four years as the Church rolls “forth unto the ends of the earth … until it has filled the whole earth” (D&C 65:2). The previous signpost was reached in late February 1996, when it was estimated that more Church members were living outside than inside the United States (see Ensign, Mar. 1996, 76).

    “In doing these calculations, definitions are necessary,” says W. Larry Elkington, manager of the Church’s management information center. “The definition of membership language is the language spoken in the family. On that basis, the axis shifts in September, when we estimate English-speaking membership will be less than 50 percent of the Church.”

    The largest language group in the Church is still English, however, with about 5.5 million English-speaking members. English is projected to continue as the largest language group in the Church for about two more decades. Spanish is presently the second largest language group in the Church, with about 3.3 million Spanish-speaking members. Sometime around the year 2020, however, based on present membership growth rates, Spanish is projected to be the largest language group in the Church, with English being second.

    At present, the rest of the non-English-speaking and non-Spanish-speaking membership constitutes about 2.2 million members. The diversity of the Church’s 11 million membership (see sidebar) is illustrated by the fact that there are wards or branches in 148 nations and 22 territories throughout the world.

    The story of the restored gospel being taken to non-English-speaking peoples is complex. Here are some of the historical firsts accomplished by official Church emissaries:

    • The first-known spoken communications to a non-English-speaking people were to the Delaware Indians of present-day Kansas in 1831.

    • The first-known written communications to a non-English-speaking people were in Dutch, primarily to Jewish rabbis in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 1841.

    • The first-known Church unit for a non-English-speaking people was the La Salle, Illinois, branch for Norwegian-speaking immigrants in 1842.

    • The first-known Church unit outside the United States for a non-English-speaking people was likely the Merthyr Tydfil branch in Wales, formed in 1843. The Welsh-speaking Rhymney, Wales, branch was also formed in 1843.

    • The first official Church emissary to a non-English-speaking people was Oliver Cowdery, second elder of the Church (see D&C 20:3), with his companions. This mission came about six months after the Church was organized. The September 1830 revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith stated that Oliver Cowdery “shall go unto the Lamanites and preach my gospel unto them” (D&C 28:8).

    Though Elder Cowdery and companions preached “at or near Buffalo,” New York, likely to Seneca and Onondaga Indians at the Buffalo Creek Reservation, and later to the Wyandot Indians in northern Ohio in 1830, it is not known whether they spoke anything other than English.1 No reference is made to using an interpreter until January 1831, when the group reached Indian Territory in present-day Kansas. Members of the group stopped one night with the Shawnees but did not stay. They proceeded to a Delaware Indian village, located about 12 miles west of the Missouri state line. There, for several days, through “an interpreter present … we commenced to make known our errand, and to tell … of the Book of Mormon.”2 As far as is known, this event represents the first spoken words of the restored gospel message from a Church emissary into the language of a non-English-speaking people. It was the 10th month since the organization of the Church in April 1830.

    The first-known written text by an official Church emissary in a non-English language was by Elder Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In the spring of 1841 he started on his appointed mission to dedicate the Holy Land. In June he stopped in Rotterdam, Holland, and published in Dutch, likely with translation assistance, “an address to the Hebrews” and said he “obtained the publication of 500 copies.”3 He left them primarily with rabbis. No copy of this tract has been located. It was 11 years after the organization of the Church.

    On his return trip from the Holy Land, Elder Hyde published in August 1842 in Frankfurt, Germany, a 115-page booklet patterned after Elder Orson Pratt’s 1840 publication of Remarkable Visions in Edinburgh, Scotland. Assisted by a young German student to whom Elder Hyde was teaching English, the work Ein Ruf aus der Wüste (A Cry from the Wilderness) is the earliest non-English Latter-day Saint book that has survived.

    Identifying the first Church unit for non-English-speaking members is complicated. The bilingual La Salle, Illinois, branch, located some 155 miles northeast of Nauvoo, was formed in about June 1842 and may qualify as the first. This successful branch was for Norwegian members converted among the Fox River Norwegian immigrant community and surrounding Norwegian settlements. Missionary work was initially done by Elder George P. Dykes in English, and subsequent Church visitors spoke in English, although Elder Dykes acquired some knowledge of Norwegian. Branch members likely spoke primarily Norwegian in their meetings; yet some could read from the English Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and other Church materials. Those who could read English needed to explain information to fellow members. The second-known Church unit in the United States for a non-English-speaking people was a German-speaking branch in Nauvoo, Illinois, December 1843.4 Thus, while the Prophet Joseph Smith presided at Nauvoo, branches were established in the state for two separate groups of non-English-speaking peoples.

    The first-known Church unit for non-English-speaking people in a non-English-speaking nation or principality came as an offshoot of the successful missionary work in England by Elder Heber C. Kimball of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his associates following their arrival in Liverpool in July 1837. In consequence of the success achieved primarily in western England, in late 1842 or early 1843 Elder Lorenzo Snow, subsequently serving in England, sent the first-known missionary, Elder William Henshaw, to Merthyr Tydfil in the Welsh heartland, Wales being a principality of Great Britain. During 1843, branches were established in Merthyr Tydfil and in Rhymney, both located in south Wales. Those “early converts were miners having come from agricultural areas where practically no English was spoken.”5

    Welsh is an ancient Celtic language, and though the gospel had been preached in Wales in 1840, with branches formed there, the work in Wales until 1843 was among English-speaking or bilingual Welsh near the English borders. Today most Welsh speak only English, and those who speak Welsh are bilingual. But in the 19th century, only a small portion of the Welsh spoke or read English. In a September 1844 letter, Elder Reuben Hedlock wrote to Church leaders in America reporting that there were about 200 converts near Merthyr Tydfil and that he had published a small pamphlet in the Welsh language on the first principles of the gospel.6 Nothing else is known of this first-known LDS publication in Welsh. The earliest surviving LDS publication in Welsh is a 48-page pamphlet by Elder Dan Jones, printed in 1845, titled Y farw wedi ei chyfodi yn fyw (The Dead Raised to Life). As is well known to readers of Church history, in the mid to late 1840s thousands of the Welsh joined the Church.

    The second-known Church unit outside the United States for a non-English-speaking people in a non-English-speaking nation was established in mid-1844 among Pacific islanders on distant Tubuai, an island of French Polynesia. After leaving Nauvoo on 1 June 1843, Elders Noah Rogers, Addison Pratt, and Benjamin F. Grouard landed on Tubuai on 30 April 1844, and in July Elder Pratt baptized some Tubuaian and Caucasian converts. In September Elder Pratt began preaching in Tahitian. Thus, it is apparent that prior to the Martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith on 27 June 1844 the establishment of the restored gospel in non-English-speaking countries had begun. It further heralded that which the Lord had spoken through the Prophet in February 1829: “Now behold, a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men” (D&C 4:1).

    Following these efforts were other landmark firsts:

    • First non-English translation of the Book of Mormon: Danish, 1851.

    • First non-English translation of the Doctrine and Covenants: Welsh, 1851.

    • First non-English translation of the Pearl of Great Price: Welsh, 1852.

    Today, Selections from the Book of Mormon is available in 39 languages, and the full Book of Mormon in 54 languages—a figure that includes English Braille, American Sign Language, and Spanish Braille—for a total of 93 languages.

    The Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price are presently available in 38 languages.

    The Liahona magazine, the Church’s international magazine, is published in English and 41 non-English languages. In addition, the First Presidency Message and Visiting Teaching Message are published in a non-magazine format in another 33 languages, for a combined total of 75 languages regularly receiving textual materials. All of this in the ongoing task appointed of the Lord: “For it shall come to pass, … that every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language, through those who are ordained unto this power, by the administration of the Comforter, shed forth upon them for the revelation of Jesus Christ” (D&C 90:11).

    This milestone of having more non-English-speaking Church members than English-speaking is a significant mark in the unfolding destiny of the Church.

    11-Million-Member Mark Reached in September

    Another membership milestone is noted for the month of September, when Church membership will reach 11 million members, according to Church statisticians. The latest gain of one million members took less than three years since the 10-million-membership line was crossed in November 1997. In contrast, it took 117 years for the Church to reach its first million members, in 1947.

    Members on Christmas Island, where Kiribati is spoken, meet in priesthood and Relief Society classes, representative of today’s multilanguage, worldwide Church.

    Oliver Cowdery and missionary companions en route to Indian Territory in present-day Kansas. (“Go … into the Wilderness,” by Robert T. Barrett.)

    Earliest surviving Latter-day Saint work in Welsh. English title translation: The Dead Raised to Life.

    Show References

    Notes

    1. 1.

      Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt [1938], 47. Another Indian reservation, the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, was 35 miles southwest of Buffalo—in a different county, where people of the Iroquois nations resided. There is no tribe or nation of Indians named Cattaraugus.

    2. 2.

      Autobiography, 53.

    3. 3.

      Times and Seasons, 15 Oct. 1841.

    4. 4.

      See History of the Church, 6:103. These German-speaking members were not converts from Germany, but mostly bilingual German- and English-speaking converts from Pennsylvania and New York. There were German speakers in Seneca County, New York, who learned about the restored gospel in 1829 and 1830. Among them was Peter Whitmer Sr., who was comfortable speaking the language of his heritage.

    5. 5.

      Letter from Ronald D. Dennis, 30 June 2000.

    6. 6.

      Manuscript History of the British Mission, 3 Sept. 1844.